The opposite of belief is not non-belief, but anxiety. To not believe, to not have faith, is to be anxious in a particular way. What way?
We get a hint at an answer in Jesus’ rather-famous comment about the lilies of the field. He tells us to consider how the flowers of the field neither toil nor spin and yet nobody, no Queen or King in all of his or her royal glory, was ever arrayed like a simple flower in the field. Jesus ends this admonition with the words: “Don’t be anxious. No sparrow falls from the sky or a hair from your head, except that God notices.” What he’s saying here is this: “Your life will not go unnoticed, you will not be forgotten. Don’t be anxious about having to leave a mark for yourself. You don’t need to make an assertion with your life!”
Yet perhaps our deepest worry is precisely that we will be forgotten, that we will go through life unnoticed, unmarked by anything that is really special.
Chicago-based theologian, John Shea, uses a very simple example to help us understand this: Have you ever, he asks, gone to your closet to look for something and, while browsing through your closet, find an item of clothing (a pair of slacks, a shirt, a sweater, a blouse) that you’d completely forgotten that you still had. You’re genuinely surprised that this particular piece of clothing still exists because you’d completely forgotten about it.
In essence, that describes one of our deepest, inchoate fears: Somewhere below our conscious awareness, somewhere in the recesses of our being, we worry that one day God will look down on this earth and, with genuine surprise, see that you or I still exist and will exclaim in surprise: “My God, she’s still alive! I’d completely forgotten about her!”
That might sound fanciful, but it’s not. Where we experience this anxiety is not so much in some conscious worry that we’ve fallen off of God’s radar screen, but in the constant, restless, insatiable worry that our lives are insignificant, that we’re not leaving behind anything of permanence, that what we are doing isn’t important enough, that we aren’t special, and that we’re destined to remain small-town and small- time, unknown and forgotten, anonymous nobodies swimming in a sea of anonymity.
That’s why we are so driven to make an assertion with our lives. We live, as Thoreau puts it, “lives of quiet desperation”, striving constantly in a thousand ways to leave some mark behind by doing something that’s special enough so that, in some way, we create some immortality, however small, for ourselves. (“Plant a tree; write a book; have a child!”) Our fear is always: If I don’t guarantee a place for myself, who will?”
That anxiety, the Gospels tell us, is the opposite of faith, the opposite of believing in God. Why? Because when we’re anxious in this way it’s precisely because we do not trust that the God, who gave us birth, desire, and talent, will also give us significance, permanence, and immortality. Faith invites us to believe that our real significance is not to have our name put up on billboards among the Hollywood stars, but to have our name written in heaven, among the eternal stars. A place in God’s heart gives us a significance and a permanence that the hall of fame does not.
“Do not be afraid,” Jesus says, “everything that is hidden will one day be revealed.” A curious statement, given that all of us have done things we prefer others not to know. Shouldn’t we be afraid if all we have ever done will one day come to light?
But what Jesus is saying will be brought to light is not our hidden sin (“files on the road”, as Leonard Cohen says), but our hidden story, our hidden significance, our hidden specialness, our hidden dignity. We need not make an assertion of our lives and our talents so as to try to prove anything because God will prove it for us. We need only to trust, trust that God will give us the significance and immortality we cannot guarantee of ourselves.
Former baseball star, Reggie Jackson, once made this comment about himself (tongue-in-cheek, as was his colourful, humorous style): “I have to deal with the magnitude of me!” The problem is exactly the opposite (as I’m sure Reggie would admit): We have to deal always with the “insubstantiality of me”, the anxious fear that we’re insignificant, that we’re small, and that we’re destined to die and disappear. That fear is what gnaws away at our faith and can, on any particular lonely day when we feel awash in a sea of anonymity, have us believe that God is dead.
Because this anxiety, the fear of being forgotten, so drives us to assert ourselves, we pray each time we go to Eucharist: “Protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.”